The life of Nebuchadnezzar demonstrated—historically—that the God of heaven can use anyone to accomplish His divine mission
Humans generally find it easier to point out other people’s errors than to name their own. Criticizing others is an exercise in futility with this exception: It is possible to learn from the mistakes of others if we study from cause to effect and learn in our own lives the lessons taught by the errors of others. This exceptional aim may bring benefit to a study of the moral deficits of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (605‑562 B.C.).
And such study may bring better understanding of God’s character as seen in His dealings with Nebuchadnezzar; demonstration of the importance of receiving and submitting to God’s warnings and counsels; and encouragement to avoid such consequences as Nebuchadnezzar experienced.
Nebuchadnezzar, the Servant of the Most High God
Many scholars focus exclusively on Nebuchadnezzar’s devastations in Judah (2 Kings 24:10‑16; 25:1‑21; Jer. 39:10), the setting up and worship of his golden image (Daniel 3), or his pride in the beauty and impregnability of Babylon (Dan. 4:30), as deserving of punishment. There is no complete record of Nebuchadnezzar’s sins and iniquities, although Daniel 4:27 suggests that he had some moral problems. It is well to consider that the casual reader of the Book of Daniel may fail to discern those actions that Yahweh considered deserving of the greatest condemnation.
It seems Nebuchadnezzar’s actions against Judah were actually commissioned by Yahweh the God of Judah (Jer. 25:9; 27:6; 43:10). It is this God who gives Nebuchadnezzar a new title: “my servant” (Jer. 25:9; 27:6; 43:10). Nebuchadnezzar, wittingly or unwittingly, is the “servant” used by God to discipline the disobedient Judah.
Some scholars object strenuously to the concept of Nebuchadnezzar as God’s servant. These consider such language to be a serious scribal mistake. In fact, the Old Testament Greek text (LXX) deliberately avoids translating “my servant” in the corresponding verses (Jer. 25:9; 34:5; 50:10). Despite this objection, many other scholars have viewed the title “my servant” as being appropriate because Nebuchadnezzar nearly annihilated Judah’s population in accordance with God’s plan for disciplining that nation. It is God who delivered King Jehoiakim and the temple resources to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon (Dan. 1:2). In this instance, Nebuchadnezzar was simply an instrument used by God to carry out His will.
“My servant” is a relational term. It denotes an existing relationship between a superior and a subordinate, for example, that of words translated “lord” or “master,” and “servant” or “vassal,” respectively. In the ancient Near East the term translated as “servant” was used widely. In the biblical tradition it could be technically used by the Hebrews (1 Sam. 27:12; 2 Kings 16:7) to mean “vassal.” In Ugarit it was a technical term that meant “a vassal.”
The idea of Nebuchadnezzar being God’s servant implies that the monarch was answerable to God for executing His assignments. Being a servant of God is a serious appointment that calls for accountability in the strictest sense. Perhaps Nebuchadnezzar lacked the personal commitment, faithfulness, dedication, and devotion of his appointment as God’s servant. Was he actually aware that he was God’s servant when he was devastating Judah? The record does not state that he intended this campaign as an act of obedience to the Most High God. He did not necessarily have to be aware of God’s decision to use him.
God can use anybody to carry out His will without letting that individual know about it. A good example is Genesis 45:7, where Joseph said to his brothers, “‘God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.’”1 Clearly, the brothers’ wickedness was used by God without their knowledge or consent for a greater good.
Nebuchadnezzar is attested as a servant of various deities on duplicate clay cylinders recovered from the ziggurat of Borsippa. The inscription on these cylinders is no doubt Neo‑Babylonian and archaic, and it reads:
“Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, the loyal shepherd, the one permanently selected by Marduk, the exalted ruler, the one loved by Nabû, the wise expert who is attentive to the ways of the gods, the tireless governor, the caretaker of Esagil and Ezida, the foremost heir of Nabopolassar, king of Babylon, I, when Marduk, my great lord, duly created me to take care of him, Nabû, the administrator of the totality of heaven and the netherworld, put in my hands the just scepter.”2
Nebuchadnezzar’s confession about his gods as inscribed on the cylinders is expressive of far more devotion and loyalty than his confession about Yahweh in Daniel 2 and 3. In Daniel 2:47 he is talking about the wonderful God of Daniel, who does unusual things. He acknowledges: “‘Your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you were able to reveal this mystery.’” And in Daniel 3:28, Nebuchadnezzar makes a nice speech about the God of the three young Hebrews: “‘Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king's command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God.’”
In Daniel 3:29, he makes an empty promise that was never backed up by his personal commitment or his political power: “‘I decree that the people of any nation or language who say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble, for no other god can save in this way.’” There is no record that this edict was carried out in Neo‑Babylonia.
The confessions of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 2:47 and 3:28 to 29, appear as hymns of praise to the God of the Hebrews. These two texts are also truth statements that, unfortunately, failed to be incorporated into the king’s character. He was never known for his moral integrity. Further, they were landmark confessions in his career as a servant of Yahweh. Yet his words did not appear to have any lasting impression on his life with regard to accountability to Yahweh.
Nebuchadnezzar’s praises are remarkable. He responded appropriately to Yahweh’s dramatic demonstrations. He acknowledged that the God of the Hebrews was God of gods (Dan. 2:47) and that there is no other god who could save as He does (3:29). Such praises are befitting a servant of Yahweh. The problem is that Nebuchadnezzar’s praises were short‑lived. He spoke the truth about the God of the Hebrews but in essence lacked the faith in that God to sustain the conviction in his own life. For “God’s truth is to be individually recognized, understood, and applied.”3
Nebuchadnezzar had tangible evidence of the unique character and power of the God of the Hebrews. For reasons known only to him, he failed to build a relationship with the God who thus revealed Himself. The king accomplished God’s mission without making a personal commitment to this God. This failure created a relational problem between Nebuchadnezzar and the God he worked for. Unfortunately, his actions betray him. His words about God should have been matched by his life. Nebuchadnezzar served at least two masters, Yahweh and Marduk. His allegiance was divided.
The Unforgotten Frightening Dream
And this happened again. Nebuchadnezzar was terrified by another dream (Dan. 4:4, 5). This time it was overwhelmingly intense and ominous. In his distress, he made an administrative error. He failed to include the leader of his intelligence service in his summons to an emergency consultation.
Previously, Nebuchadnezzar had put Daniel in charge of all the wise men who had failed to interpret an earlier dream (Dan. 2:48). Considering Daniel’s success in telling and interpreting the king’s first dream, it seems strange that Nebuchadnezzar should now fail to consult first and foremost with Daniel, his chief of intelligence. Why he initially involved his Babylonian wise men and not Daniel is a puzzle. Even though, in this instance, the king remembered and related the dream, the Babylonian officials could not make sense out of what he said about his dream (4:7). It was not until the illustrious wise men of Babylon were forced to admit defeat that Daniel was consulted.
In the ancient courts, kings were surrounded by a group of highly qualified advisers who would interpret omens and advise the king on critical issues. The story of Joseph is a good biblical example (Genesis 41). In Neo‑Assyria, the king was always surrounded by his learned advisers who provided “personal discussion and explication of interpretations.”4 Despite the input of the elite, the ancient king always had to make the final decision on what to do with the information provided by the wise men. Kuhrt argues that it is clear from the recovered evidence that the king had “sufficient knowledge to be in a position to estimate the likely accuracy of statements”5 or even to challenge the interpretations.
Nebuchadnezzar continues to call Daniel by the name Belteshazzar(Dan. 4:8, 9, 19). Daniel had received this name when he was enrolled in King Nebuchadnezzar College (1:7). The Hebrew name Daniel means “God is my judge” or “My judge is God.” Belteshazzar is the Babylonian name translated as “protect his life” or “protect the life of the prince/king.”6 Perhaps the name Belteshazzar implied that the bearer was in a position and under obligation to protect the life of the king. If this were the case, Nebuchadnezzar should, for his own protection, have taken seriously the advice Belteshazzar (Daniel) provided (4:17).
Nebuchadnezzar’s dream was vivid in his memory. He had forgotten other dreams in the past (Dan. 2:2‑7), but not this one. He related the dream to Daniel, whom he preferred to call Belteshazzar. He had confidence in Daniel’s ability to give the authentic interpretation to the dream. Interestingly, when Daniel arrived to interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s first recorded dream (Daniel 2), Nebuchadnezzar posed a challenging question to Daniel: “‘Are you able?’” (vs. 26).
Later, when Daniel came before the monarch to interpret the king’s last recorded dream (Daniel 4), Nebuchadnezzar reversed his earlier words to Daniel. Instead of asking, “‘Are you able?’” (2:26), the king now affirmed him by stating, “You are able” (4:18, NKJV). Thus Nebuchadnezzar shifted from the interrogative to the affirmative. Such a shift shows that Nebuchadnezzar had established confidence in Daniel as someone who could meet his expectations.
Daniel was possibly shocked by the king’s dream. It was apparent that it was evil. He hesitated to tell the king the interpretation because he had bad news for him. In ancient times the person who brought bad news that implicated the king would face execution. In fact, Daniel wished that the dream could be applied to the king’s enemies and adversaries (Dan. 4:19).
The idea of wishing misfortune and disaster on enemies still prevails in our contemporary world. We want our enemies to suffer devastating setbacks or even to die. Daniel’s warning that the dream meant disaster to Nebuchadnezzar was expressed euphemistically (vs. 19). The king insisted, however, on knowing the meaning of the dream. He sought to allay Daniel’s fears. In fact, Daniel’s fear was not based on what might happen to him should he tell the king the dream. Rather, Daniel was stunned at the gravity of the prediction concerning the king.
But Daniel related the meaning of the dream without compromising the message (Dan. 4: 19‑26). He added an appendix to its interpretation (vs. 27), an appeal for the king immediately to reform his ways in the hope that he might avert the impending calamity. Daniel’s appeal to the king was so clear and earnest that the king did not ask any further questions. He understood the gravity of the prophetic dream, but would make his own decision based on his own feelings about what his chief advisor had said. Nebuchadnezzar was not alarmed by Daniel’s interpretation. He was not impressed to make the changes necessary to safeguard his future. Further, there is no record in Daniel 4 that Nebuchadnezzar conferred honor on Daniel or offered praise to Daniel’s God for the interpretation of that dream. Perhaps he rejected Daniel’s interpretation. Twelve months later, he was still in denial (vss. 29, 30).
The role of wise men in the king’s court was advisory only. The king had full authority in deciding whether or not to act upon the advice he received. He could accept the advice or reject it. When God’s word of warning comes to anyone, it is left to the individual to make a decision to comply or to reject that word.
It is not altogether surprising that Nebuchadnezzar failed to give due credit to Daniel’s advice. Earlier, Daniel had interpreted the dream of the image (Daniel 2) and the king, although deeply impressed, did not act according to his advice. He made an image of gold alone—and not of the different metals seen in the dream (3:1, 5, 7, 10). By making an image of gold only, Nebuchadnezzar attempted to overrule Daniel’s interpretation (2:37‑45). He objected to the idea of being displaced by another inferior kingdom (vs. 39). Since nothing of consequence had happened to him when he acted contrary to Daniel’s interpretation of his first dream, it was easy for him to trust his own judgment with regard to later prophetic dreams.
It was deemed crucial for ancient kings to maintain their dignity and individuality. Nevertheless, in many cases where the ancient kings heeded the advice from their elite, all worked out well for them. The Pharaoh who followed Joseph’s advice thereby saved Egypt and the whole region from the seven years of grueling drought and famine (Gen. 41:56, 57).
Daniel kindly asked the king to consider his advice seriously: “‘Be pleased to accept my advice: renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue’” (Dan. 4:27). Nebuchadnezzar had “sins” and “wickedness” that displeased the Most High God, but Daniel hoped that something could be done to avoid the stated consequences. In other words, Nebuchadnezzar’s sins and wickedness could be repented of, and it was in his power to change his course of action. Knowing Yahweh as he did, Daniel believed that such a course of action could result in the forgiveness of the king’s sins and a possible delay or reversal of the threatened punishment.
Opportunity was given to Nebuchadnezzar to set right his bad record. Sins committed against fellow humans were also committed against the God to whom they belonged. The king himself was responsible for repenting of the mistakes he had made during his career as a servant of Yahweh. His sins were to be forsaken, and his sincerity demonstrated by doing that which was right and just. He needed to become sensitive to the needs of others. In different ways, God gives each individual an opportunity to expunge his bad record.
It is worthy of notice that the fate of Nebuchadnezzar is already determined by the holy beings (Dan. 4:13, 17), but Daniel’s advice, if heeded, seems to suggest that the divine plans for the king might be subject to change, depending upon the king’s response to his dream (vs. 27). Nebuchadnezzar already knew that “‘the spirit of the holy gods’” (vs. 9) was in Daniel. He knew, therefore, that Daniel would not, in such a situation, offer his own opinions. Rather, the king’s advisor was delivering a divine message, the rejection of which was an evidence of Nebuchadnezzar’s attitude toward Yahweh, and not toward Daniel.
It seems reasonable to assume that the king understood that Yahweh’s message demanded an immediate response. The Hebrew word translated “therefore,” used here (Dan 4:27), seems to allow for the possibility of a change in Nebuchadnezzar’s situation. However, “therefore” (vs. 27), can also call one’s attention to some definite action that is to take place without failure. At any rate, a red flag was raised and the king would have done well to take the situation seriously. The call for repentance is always solemn and must be considered seriously and promptly. It is an emergency. “Therefore” (vs. 27) brings prospects of hope as well as of despair. Nebuchadnezzar is presented with a clear indication of the need to re‑evaluate the course of his life after the dream. He is required to respond to the message promptly and responsibly.
Nebuchadnezzar’s Moral Deficits
Daniel pleaded earnestly with the king to consider the advice he presented. Perhaps the sentence determined upon the king could be changed. Daniel’s proposal focused on two requirements. Nebuchadnezzar’s potential escape from the impending doom was predicated upon his willingness to separate himself from sins and iniquities (Dan. 4:27). Daniel was most probably urging that the king initiate a “violent self‑liberation”7 or “snatching out or tearing away associated with rescue”8 from his own sins and iniquities. It may well have been a difficult and painful process, but it was at least possible and in the end would have been very rewarding. That, for Nebuchadnezzar, would have been a saving act.
What was it that Nebuchadnezzar needed to separate from? Daniel stated clearly to the king that “your sins” and “your iniquities” must be done away with immediately. There is a difference between sins and iniquities. The word sin, from its root, can be understood to be “the religious disqualification of specific modes of behavior”9 and it “designates negative conditions and conduct, especially with reference to human agents in a religious context.”10 Sin is something committed against the divine. This means that Nebuchadnezzar had committed sins against God. Sin is to “miss a scope or aim.11 Postmodernity has dropped the word sinfrom its vocabulary. In the eyes of Yahweh, Nebuchadnezzar had some actions, omissions, or behaviors on his record that failed to meet Yahweh’s expectations.
Iniquities are “the transgressions of human beings toward others, transgressions inevitably prompting drastic consequences for the perpetrator.”12 These are the offenses against humanity. When Daniel confronted King Belshazzar on the night Babylon fell to the Medes and Persians, he reminded him of Nebuchadnezzar’s sins and iniquities (Dan. 5:18‑21). Nebuchadnezzar was appointed to be Yahweh’s servant and had become internationally recognized. After learning his duty before the King of kings, he still killed people at will and humiliated those whom he disliked. Besides his abuse of power, Nebuchadnezzar became so arrogant about his achievements that the Most High God saw the need to strip him of all his personal power and glory.
The pride of Nebuchadnezzar is attested to in the biblical text as well as archaeological evidence. Daniel 4:30 reads: “‘Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?’” There is a striking similarity between Nebuchadnezzar’s words in Daniel 4:30 and his words in some of the Neo‑Babylonian documents. In the Grotefend Cylinder, Nebuchadnezzar boasted: “Then built I the palace, the seat of my royalty, the bond of the race of men, the dwelling of joy and rejoicing.”13
He also declared in the India House Inscription that “in Babylon, my dear city, which I love, was the palace, the wonder of the people, the bond of the land, the brilliant place, the abode of majesty in Babylon.”14 It seems that Nebuchadnezzar became inordinately proud of his achievements. He was “exalted to the pinnacle of worldly honor”15 and became “so ambitious and so proud-spirited.”16 The Most High God disciplined Nebuchadnezzar by exiling him to the fields where he lived as an animal among animals for seven years.
In Daniel 4:27, Daniel pleaded with Nebuchadnezzar to break away from his wickedness by doing righteousness and showing mercy to the poor. Righteousness is doing right. Zvi H. Szubin defines righteousness as “the fulfillment of all legal and moral obligations,”17 and it “requires not merely abstention from evil, but a constant pursuit of justice and the performance of positive deeds.”18 Louis Jacobs points out that in Rabbinic literature righteousness is understood to include charity, almsgiving, and practical benevolence.19 Righteousness “involves not only justice at a court of law but correct behavior in social frameworks. The term is focused on one’s function within the demands of specific relationships, and its meaning depends on whether the emphasis is on interaction among human beings or with God.”20 Nebuchadnezzar fell far short of doing righteousness and showing mercy to the poor.
The Collection of Wealth
The Babylonian Chronicle attests that Nebuchadnezzar looted vast tribute from Judah and the surrounding areas he had defeated.21 He carried the temple utensils from the Jerusalem temple and deposited them in the Esagila, the temple of Marduk, his god (Dan. 1:2). The wealth that Nebuchadnezzar plundered from the vassal nations made Babylon the richest city in the ancient world. The India House Inscription of Nebuchadnezzar indicates:
“Silver, gold, costly precious stones, bronze, mismakannu‑and cedar wood, all conceivable valuables, great (?) superabundance, the product of the mountains, the wealth of the sea, a heavy burden, a sumptuous gift, I brought to my city of Babil before him, and deposited in Esagila, the palace of his lordship, a gigantic abundance. Ekua, the chamber of Marduk, lord of the gods, I made to gleam like the sun.”22
Nebuchadnezzar persisted in attributing his victories over other nations to his god Marduk. He did not recognize the God of the Hebrews as having any part in enabling his success. Moreover, there are no recovered records that show that Nebuchadnezzar reinvested any of his ill‑gotten wealth in the countries he had plundered.
Could it be that Nebuchadnezzar neglected to make provision for the needs of the poor of the conquered lands—the refugees whom he did not choose to take to Babylon (e.g., 2 Kings 25:12; Jer. 39:10)? When Gedaliah the appointed governor over Judah was killed in 582 B.C. by Ishmael ben Nethaniah and his gang of dissidents (2 Kings 25:25; Jer. 41:2), Nebuchadnezzar never designated another leader for the poor people remaining in Judah. The Wadi Brisa Inscription identifies Nebuchadnezzar as “the just king.”23
In 595 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar released a royal document that condemned Baba‑aha‑iddina son of Nabu‑ahhe‑bullit, one of his top officials who had rebelled against him. In the document Nebuchadnezzar described himself as the one who “determines right and justice”24 and also as one who was responsible for destroying all criminals in the kingdom (Dan. 4:27; 5:19). In Mesopotamia, a concept was widely known involving the establishment of justice in the land, and speaking the truth. As already noted, Nebuchadnezzar did not live up to his royal decree in Daniel 3:29. Moreover, one is inclined to be suspicious of Nebuchadnezzar’s criteria for whom he chose to kill or to spare (5:19).
It seems that Nebuchadnezzar might have forgotten, or somehow neglected, some critical traditional practices. Evidence shows that all over Mesopotamia, some parts of the Levant (north Syria), and also Elam, it was customary, or even obligatory for kings to publish a decree showing their affirmation of social justice. This was generally published about the time of their accession. The main purpose for such an edict was to rectify the social anomalies that were caused by debt.
Usually the process for correcting the imbalances in the society began by lighting torches as a public sign that the royal announcement was soon to take place. The king would assemble his officials at his palace and present to them the written edict. All the tablets on which creditors had recorded what their debtors owed would be collected and destroyed. Whoever had his debt record destroyed was free from the obligation of repaying that debt. Thus, those who were socially undermined or ostracized because of debt delinquency would be rehabilitated in the society. This was repeated at three- or seven-year intervals as long as the king was on the royal throne. There is no extant record showing that Nebuchadnezzar ever participated in this process.
Nebuchadnezzar was consistent in honoring his Babylonian gods, although he acknowledged that the Most High God was unique. One of his prayers to Marduk, probably offered in 598 B.C., reads:
“I then raised my hand; to the lord of lords,
to Marduk, the merciful, my supplications went forth:
‘O lord of the lands, Marduk, hear the utterance of my mouth!
Let me be fully content in my palace, which I built!
Let me reach old age within Babylon!
Let me enjoy a ripe old age!’”25
Nebuchadnezzar maintained his fidelity to his gods despite rendering a certain level of service to the Most High God who had demonstrated His uniqueness and power through the Hebrew captives. It is important to note that Yahweh did not sentence Nebuchadnezzar for crimes committed in ignorance. It was not until the monarch had a thorough knowledge of the power and plans and supremacy of the God of gods and then rejected His claims that he was held accountable for his actions.
Since Nebuchadnezzar would not comply with the requirements of the Most High God, the dream came true for him 12 months after its interpretation (Dan. 4:29). While the king was proclaiming his own greatness, a voice from heaven spoke, and immediately, the monarch’s mind became deranged. He went out and ate grass like the cattle (vss. 31‑33). After the seven years of animal‑like life, Nebuchadnezzar raised his eyes toward heaven in humility and praise to the King of the universe. Having learned his lessons and passed the test (vs. 34), he was restored to his throne, a wiser, humbler, better man.
The Most High God graciously bestowed upon King Nebuchadnezzar the title, “My Servant.” The monarch had the opportunity to learn about the requirements of this God through his Hebrew captives. This haughty king, however, disdained to be a humble servant to the Most High God. He did not deign to consider himself responsible to anyone for his behavior toward his subjects.
When Zedekiah king of Judah rebelled, the Babylonian army pursued him from Jerusalem and captured him by the plains of Jericho (Jer. 39:5‑7). They brought Zedekiah to Nebuchadnezzar at Riblah, where the king decided the fate of his rebellious vassal. Nebuchadnezzar killed Zedekiah’s sons before him and then gouged out his eyes before carrying him captive to Babylon. In Daniel 4, we see that the Most High God is disciplining Nebuchadnezzar, his disobedient servant. The form of discipline was unusual, but it worked.
After seven years of beast‑like behavior, Nebuchadnezzar came to terms with reality and with God (Dan. 4:34, 35). Lifting his eyes toward heaven is a sign of acknowledging that the Most High God controls human power and destiny. His intellect was restored.
Nebuchadnezzar’s testimony about God in Daniel 4:34, 35, and 37 is a genuine statement of praise from a convicted and converted individual. He was re-established in his sovereignty with added greatness and honor. His advisers who had previously failed him surrounded him again (vs. 36). What would these advisers and nobles contribute to the changed Nebuchadnezzar?
The God of heaven can use anyone to accomplish His divine mission. Achieving what God wants does not overrule moral integrity and responsibilities. Those who develop a working relationship with God should be very sensitive to divine promptings and demands. What counts most when working for God is faithfulness to Him.
Patrick Mazani, Ph.D., is a pastor in the Ohio Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.